Dalbeattie Town History

Murdoch of the 'Titanic'

2. The Life of
William McMaster Murdoch

Captain Samuel Murdoch
c. 1900

Lieutenant William
McMaster Murdoch, RNR.
c. 1907

"William Murdoch was our brightest star."

- Commodore Sir Bertram Hayes, White Star Line (retired 1925) Comment to Frederick Topping, former Vice-President and Director in New York. (Not mentioned in Hayes's book, as he had his pension from White Star to think of.)

Dalbeattie has been the birthplace of many seamen, few better known or more maligned than William McMaster Murdoch, First Officer (First Mate) of the RMS 'Titanic' of the White Star Line. A monument to this seaman is set in the granite walls of Dalbeattie Town Hall. It recalls his death aboard the 'Titanic' after she sank on 15th April 1912, having collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic.

In this section, we look at his early life from birth in 1873 to his joining the White Star Line in c. 1900.

Birth and Education in Dalbeattie

William McMaster Murdoch was born on 28th February 1873 at No.3 'Sunnyside', Barr Hill, Dalbeattie, the fourth son of Captain Samuel Murdoch and Jane (or 'Jeannie') Muirhead, six of whose children survived infancy. The family had prospered mainly through investing the wages of their successful ships' officers in building local property, and by trading in the ships of relatives. After living briefly at 341 High Street, they were to move to a new house in the High Street, - 'Oakland Cottage' - named for the port that faced San Francisco across its Bay. It was said of Captain Samuel Murdoch that he was as well known in Oakland as in Dalbeattie itself, where the family were well-liked. Models of sailing ships, souvenirs and photographs, and other seafaring memorabilia, reinforced the interest of William in life at sea. Samuel was a personal friend of the writer Joseph Conrad, so a respect for learning and ability was ingrained in the family.

The grandfather this of Samuel (2) Murdoch, - another Samuel (1), - was a successful and respected shoemaker, whose thatched cottage was beside Barcloy Mill near Rockcliffe. It was his sons who started to build up the family money, two becoming shoemakers, the third, - James, - becoming a successful sea-captain. Death at sea was a constant risk, so it became a family rule that at least one of the men in each generation should take up a trade ashore, safeguarding the family's women, children and name. All three of James's sons became Captains, Samuel (2) being the only one to die on land, as David and William died at sea. His uncle Andrew was also to die at sea, though John, cousin to Samuel (2), survived to become a captain during the First World War (1914-1918).

No.3 'Sunnyside' (1998) No.343 High Street (1998) Oakland Cottage, Dalbeattie (1998)

William was educated first at the old Dalbeattie Primary School in the High Street, and then at the High School in Alpine Street until he gained his diploma in 1887. He was remembered as being an intelligent and hard-working scholar, which in 1912 made the town establish the Murdoch Memorial Prize in his memory.

The old Primary School was made into a private house, and its former playground is occupied by the 'Ship' public house. The old High School, considerably extended, was by 1965 the Primary School, a new High School being built on fields at Urr Road to the west of the town.

Old Primary School
Dalbeattie (1998)
Old Dalbeattie High School (c.1890) William and younger sister Agnes, c. 1890

The whole family were very gifted; William's favourite elder sister, Margaret Elizabeth or 'Peg', graduated with a Master's Degree from Edinburgh University and became a headmistress; she died in 1973, aged 91. His elder brother James Murdoch became a chemist dying young at 39 in 1906. The youngest son, Samuel (3), became a merchant with Lockett Brothers, importing nitrate from the Iquique mines in Chile's Atacama Desert. That Samuel had a son, Samuel (4) Scott Murdoch, from whom much of this information has been gathered.

Early Career at Sea

The Murdoch family was to lose many of its men in twelve horrifying years, drowned at sea in performance of their duties. In April 1901, William's cousin, a Captain John Murdoch, was lost with his new bride aboard the 'Craignair'. His uncle, another William Murdoch, drowned when the schooner 'Mary' was wrecked on Rascarrel Rocks at Auchencairn Bay in April 1906; that uncle, though retired, had agreed at the owner's request to assist the schooner's master. Regrettably, it appears that the master had got drunk in Whitehaven, and old William had a cup too many himself. Another John Murdoch, William's only surviving paternal uncle, was to be ost in April 1907, when First Officer of the Anglo American Company's ship 'Alcides'. Also in 1907, Captain James T. Thorburn, husband to one of William's aunts, was lost with his 15-year-old son and 12 crew when the barque 'Dundonald' was wrecked in the Auckland Islands off New Zealand.

On finishing school, William was apprenticed for five years to William Joyce & Coy, Liverpool, but after four years (and four voyages) he was so competent that he passed his Second Mate's Certificate. He served his apprenticeship aboard the 'Charles Cosworth' of Liverpool, trading to the west coast of South America. His father Captain Samuel Murdoch then was employed by the Liverpool-based shipping firm of Alexander Rae (later J.&J. Rae). William may have served with his father as Second Mate aboard the 1,941 ton barque 'Iquique', trading to Peru and Chile, between 1892 and 1895. It would have been a harsh kind of apprenticeship, but it gave William the determination he needed to succeed. From 17th May 1895 he was First Mate on the 'Saint Cuthbert', which was to sink in a hurricane off Uruguay in 1897. William had gained his Extra Master's Certificate No. 025780 at Liverpool in 1896 and had been replaced by John Murdoch (who died on the 'Craignair').

William's career between 1896 and 1901 is rather fragmentary, but the shipping records show that from 3rd April 1897 to 2nd May 1899 that he was First Mate (First Officer) aboard the J.Joyce & Co. steel four-masted barque 'Lydgate', a 2,534 tonner. The 'Lydgate' traded from New York to Shanghai, and at least one of her voyages was delayed by bad weather. This distant posting may account for a lack of information in the Lloyds' Register on his movements.

It is possible that Murdoch had already made up his mind to enter the faster and more glamorous life of a steamship officer, and his chance may have come in 1899. The Boer War in South Africa had called for the rapid mobilisation of British, Canadian and Australian troops, and many horses. The 'Iquique', with her comparatively large size and speed, was taken over as one of Her Majesty's Transports, possibly chartered by the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company or another of Ismay's affiliates. Murdoch may have served aboard her again as a First Officer, and was trained as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. From there, with past experience as a bright and capable officer, William won the chance to enter the White Star Line as one of its Second Officers.

The Captain of the 'Californian, Captain Stanley Lord, was at one time an apprentice aboard the 'Iquique' and met William Murdoch. As William Murdoch was such a modest man that Stanley Lord had not realised what rank this other officer held, and thought him to be another apprentice. This odd and ironic story is mentioned by Elizabeth Gibbons in her history 'To the Bitter End', but may date from earlier times in Murdoch's career. It shows a lack of observation on the part of Lord, which might with more cynicism be carried forwards to his conduct at the time of the loss of the 'Titanic'. A 1996 investigation acquitted Lord of misconduct, but at the time his ship may have been closer to the stricken 'Titanic' than any other.

Forward to W.M.Murdoch's career with the White Star Line, c. 1900-1912.


This page was prepared with detailed assistance from Samuel Scott Murdoch, the nephew of the First Officer of the 'Titanic'.

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The MURDOCH MEMORIAL PRIZE

This Prize is competed for annually by Fourth-Year scholars at Dalbeattie High School.
The Murdoch website has been prepared because of that Memorial.
The fund supporting this Prize needs to be increased and the account has been reopened by the Board of Governors of the Stewartry Educational Trust.

To make a Donation to the official Memorial Prize.

In Memoriam

Monument to William McMaster Murdoch on Dalbeattie Town Hall


Enquiries about William McMaster Murdoch for Mr. S.S. Murdoch and Mr. E. Robinson can be forwarded by e-mail through :-

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